Pickleball is for everyone.
That’s the message that Gig Harbor resident Adrienne Barlow wants to spread.
Pickleball, which was created on Washington state’s Bainbridge Island in the mid 1960s, is a relatively new sport. Now, Barlow, 47, wants to take it to the next level — a more inclusive level.
Barlow was born in Texas with a slowly progressive muscle paralysis condition. It took more than 30 years for the condition to be properly diagnosed, she said.
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It was originally diagnosed as a sleeping disorder. Over time, Barlow was given many different diagnoses.
By the time it was diagnosed properly, the damage was irreversible. Now, Barlow is in a wheelchair.
The condition’s first major impact came for Barlow in the late 1980s. She joined the United States Air Force in 1986, going into the field of environmental protection.
“That was the first time I lost (use of) my legs,” Barlow said. “I found later that it was part of a muscle disease. No matter what the condition was, I kept doing everything I shouldn’t have.”
She was even a firefighter, in addition to serving in the Air Force.
“I was always very, very physical,” Barlow said.
Barlow’s stint in the Air Force was cut short because of her condition. She studied at Wasburn University in Kansas, and the University of Kansas before fulfilling a career as a physical scientist and environmental protection specialist.
Over time, the condition grew worse. In 2013, Barlow got a wheelchair.
“The first day I got the chair, I kept it in my car — I wouldn’t use it,” Barlow said. “The second day, I went to play wheelchair basketball. My strength had declined and I found out I couldn’t do it. But the third day, I decided to go try to play pickleball.”
Her love for the sport took off from there. Pickleball, for the uninitiated, is a racquet sport that combines parts of badminton, tennis and table tennis. It’s played on a small court with a net, paddles made of wood and a ball that is similar to a wiffle ball.
I knew the way I wanted to deal with going into the chair and losing strength was through sports.
Adrienne Barlow, Rock N Roll Pickleball founder
“I knew I was going to be losing not only my legs, but full movement — which I will,” Barlow said. “I knew the way I wanted to deal with going into the chair and losing strength was through sports.”
Barlow has been living in Gig Harbor for four years. She’s the founder of a program called Rock N Roll Pickleball, which supports inclusion for those with permanent disabilities. It’s for anyone: People with permanent disabilities, or able-bodied folks who just want to play as well.
“Rock” is for standing athletes. “Roll” is for the wheelchair athletes. Together, they’re Rock N Roll.
“It’s open to anyone,” Barlow said. “It’s all about inclusion and access, trying to get people to understand that a wheelchair isn’t a bad thing. We shouldn’t think life is over, shouldn’t ever treat anyone like life is over. We should expect them to overcome. It’s a good life, a full life.”
Barlow said the community response has been mixed. A lot of people have embraced her idea. Others have pushed back a bit.
There’s been some positive feedback and some reluctance to it. We’re a minority and that’s always an uphill battle.
“There’s been some positive feedback and some reluctance to it,” Barlow sad. “We’re a minority and that’s always an uphill battle. Integration has been tough. Getting dedicated para-pickleball time, getting other athletes who are also competitive in pickle ball to understand the needs, and how to play with a roller. Getting people trained to teach Rock N Roll Pickleball. That’s part of it: Teaching people who want to become adaptive coaches.”
Barlow’s short-term goal is to establish a Tacoma-area team, and eventually one in another city — possibly Seattle, Portland, etc., to compete against the Tacoma-area team. Barlow puts on clinics about once a month at the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care campus on American Lake in Lakewood. Barlow is also looking at starting affiliated clubs in other major cities across the United States, perhaps on the East Coast and in the South.
“I’ve been flying across the country promoting the sport, helping develop clubs across the country so we can compete,” Barlow said. “I never saw myself as a business owner. I love it. It’s for a good cause.”
The long-term goal? Getting para-pickleball into the Paralympics. That process, as one might imagine, is complicated.
It requires developing different classification systems for disabled athletes, which is the most challenging task. It requires rules, guidelines and standards. And the biggest hurdle — it requires approval from the Paralympic committee.
Garry FitzGerald, who works at the Loma Linda University Medical Center with disabled individuals and serves on the Paralympic advisory board for a nonprofit community outreach program called PossAbilities, is helping Barlow through the process.
“It’s a competitive process, because of the fact that there are so many adaptive sports now,” FitzGerald said. “A lot of sports are asking for Paralympic recognition. It has to be evaluated by a committee, and they would determine whether or not it meets their criteria for a Paralympic sports. It’s a process that’s looked at very closely, based on how popular the sport is, the public following, the number of adaptive athletes that can compete in the sport, and so on.”
It’s unlikely that para-pickleball will be approved in time for 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. But Barlow is optimistic it has a chance to get approved in time for the 2024 games. Whatever happens, Barlow will likely still be going full steam ahead and pursuing her passion of helping others. Her message for those with permanent disabilities who are looking for a recreational activity? Come try pickle ball.
It increases your physical ability in everyday life and increases tolerance of society in general.
“It increases your physical ability in everyday life and increases tolerance of society in general,” Barlow said. “It increases awareness about the access issues. It’s not a lack of abilities, but a lack of access and opportunities.”
Folks interested in checking out Rock N Roll Pickleball, disabled or not, can contact Barlow for more information at 253-313-6819, can reach her by email at email@example.com or can find additional information at rocknrollpickleball.com.